Is this an Elder Scrolls game or an MMO?
Project Lead, Matt Firor, stated that The Elder Scrolls Online was to be a perfect blend of an MMO and an Elder Scrolls game. By doing this, the team at Zenimax Online Studios wants to draw in fans of MMOs and those who enjoy the Elder Scrolls series. In order to succeed at this goal, this title has to strike a delicate balance. Swing too far in one direction and risk losing one of these key audiences. As my MMO experience is not as robust as some, I consider myself in the ES fan group that Zenimax is trying to coax into playing online. Recently, I was able to sit down with a pre-alpha version of The Elder Scrolls Online and play for about four hours. After creating my character, exploring three major zones, and hitting level seven, I have a better feel for what the studio is trying to do with this game. While it straddles the line better than expected, there are still a few issues to balance before it launches in 2013.
Despite enjoying Oblivion and Skyrim, combat in Elder Scrolls games has never been a major draw for me. With this being an MMO, I wasn't sure if my opinion would change much, as I never found combat in MMOs like World of Warcraft to be a huge selling point. That said, combat in The Elder Scrolls Online is much less chaotic and more focused than in previous single-player entries.
Part of this comes from its third-person perspective. Sure you could play Skyrim in third-person, but it was not the game's default setting for a reason. Here, players have a much better view of what's around them and can position themselves against waves of enemies with more ease than ever before. Players also have a direct and immediate control of their character as there are no MMO-style skill cooldowns to be found. Characters have stamina and magicka meters that govern how often skills can be used and as players level up, they will be able to place points into either one of those areas or into health. Overall, it felt like an improved version of Skyrim's combat system using third-person and adding class skills to further enhance customization.
There is also a lot of variety in how to play, as even though there are classes, players are not locked into a specific role based on their initial selection. Characters can equip any weapon and piece of armor regardless of their class; meaning that a Sorcerer could be decked out in heavy armor and dual wielding swords. Of course, there are still reasons to use light armor, as those grant bonuses to magic and other abilities befitting a Sorcerer, but that's completely up to the player. In typical Elder Scrolls fashion, the more a player uses a weapon or ability, the more powerful it will become. Players also gain more experience based on how well they did in combat, so well-timed blocks, accurate attacks, stunning blows, and perfect dodges will all be beneficial both during and after combat.
It's a fairly robust system headed up by Lead Gameplay Designer, Nick Konkle. In talking with Nick, he stated that the team's focus was to find what made the game fun and then balance that instead of simply restricting gameplay decisions based around standard MMO trappings. That brought about the removal of skill cooldowns, enemy aggression meters, and equipment restrictions as the team sought to make the game a fun RPG first and then worry about the MMO parts second. As such, the combat within The Elder Scrolls Online feels very much like an action game and is better for it.
Playing Around with Customization
ESO offers a great deal of freedom as far as character building goes. Players select one of three factions (think Alliance and Horde plus one) which give them a choice of three different races each. In this demo, we were able to play as the Ebonheart Pact, a group that consists of Nords, Dark Elves, and Argonians. After creating a Nord, I had to choose a class, but for this demo I could only select from Dragonknight or Templar. Having already seen a bit of the Dragonknight from a brief walkthrough, I went with the Templar and my adventure was on its way.
The Templar seems to fill the Paladin mold, as it is a melee focused character with access to restorative magic, but since the game has no aggro meters there were no crowd control options, at least early on. I started off using a two-handed maul and heavy armor, but eventually decided to try dual wielding swords and found that fit just as well with my combat style. In tight situations, I was able to use either Rushed Ceremony, a standard healing spell, or Sun Strike, a life draining attack, to keep my health up. Both were a great boon to the solo warrior that I enjoy playing, but could also be beneficial in a group setting.
While I only saw the Dragonknight being played by others, I was able to get a good look at the class's skill set as well. While more of a straight damage dealing class, Dragonknights can use Fiery Reach to pull in close while at the same time dealing fire damage. This happened many times during my quest, as a foe I was engaged with would get pulled away to be finished off by another random combatant. Thankfully, no experience was lost on my end. While both classes have a melee focus, everyone seemed to be playing their characters differently due to having full equipment freedom and skill customization.
There are also many interesting aspects of party mechanics for public grouping as well. One example is skill pairing, such as the Sorcerer's Lightning Splash which hits enemies with a lightning bolt and leaves behind an area of electricity that another character can come into and cause an additional area attack for secondary damage. This is just one example of group dynamics that come into play here. These features combined with the fact that the entire game from level one to max level can be completed solo give this game more of a feel of being an RPG with a lots of co-op options than a standard MMO.
There were many other classes available, but only these two and the Sorcerer were shown. While I was only given the option of the three selectable races, there are six others spread across two additional factions that will be playable at launch. Players will also be able to craft, trade items, and join guilds. The Fighters and Mages Guilds will be in at launch while the Thieves Guild and the Dark Brotherhood will most likely be post-launch additions. These features combined with a healthy amount of customization in terms of how your character looks in third-person helps to at least keep The Elder Scrolls Online on par with other series titles.
Adventuring Throughout Tamriel
Often in Skyrim or Oblivion, instead of following an active quest, I would simply head out into the wilderness or dive into an unexplored dungeon just to see what was out there. This is one area where ESO felt a little more restricted, at least in my early experience. Each faction has their own unique starting area that has to be completed before moving onto the next locale. In the case of the Ebonheart Pact, everyone begins on Bleakrock, a small island northeast of Skyrim. The main focus in this area was to rescue locals in trouble while fending off an invasion from an opposing faction, the Daggerfall Covenant. There were many side quests to be tackled, though all were optional outside of the main story progression quest that had my character fending off invading forces while trying to allow the villagers of Bleakrock time to escape to a boat to take them to Morrowind. That main quest I had to tackle before I could move on.
The island served as a great starting area to help players get a feel of the game before diving in deeper. As such I was surprised when I found myself locked in Bal Foyen, the second area of the game, as well. I'm used to having a tutorial area, but by the time I finished Bleakrock I knew how to play and was ready to head out into the world and make my own adventure. This is one area where the standard MMO trappings still held things back a bit. Upon reaching the third area, I could continue on into the world without following a linear path, though there still was a main narrative to help guide me. It just took too long to get out of the Point A to Point B guiding, as that's never been my style of play in an Elder Scrolls game.
As far as quests go, I never had to head out to kill X number of creatures, but instead was sent throughout the world to complete more meaningful story quests that would then change the landscape based on the decisions I made. I left a few villagers back on Bleakrock during the invasion, so these people were lost forever to me. Had I saved them, they might have been around to provide a service for me later. In the second area, I had an option to help in training a group of new recruits. Since I ignored that quest, when I left the recruit camp to fend for themselves against an assault, all the recruits were wiped out to the man, the poor souls.
While the starting areas lingered a little too long for my taste, when I finally started to get into the meat of the game it really began to feel like an Elder Scrolls game with side quests galore and a main questline to drive you forward. These quests that I experienced were not quite as subtle as they were in ESO's single-player brethren, but there were still a few that I was able to stumble upon without simply hunting for the next glowing quest marker.
Most of the complaints I have about the progression system and lack of exploratory freedom stems more from the fact that the game has to be so huge to accommodate months worth of MMO content. Many of the game's features don't even come into play until much further than I was able to experience. Public dungeons, guild quests, and PvP are all much further in. In fact, the whole area of Cyrodiil (Oblivion's province) is a high level zone and the only area where PvP takes place. Here, the three factions battle each other to see who will take over the land and crown an emperor. This area is nine times the size of one of the larger starting zones.
Still to Come
While it's difficult to judge an online RPG with as much content as The Elder Scrolls Online intends to have from a four hour slice of pre-alpha gameplay, but from what I've seen it's clear that Zenimax Online has a good start. First off, the game was extremely stable and the only time I did get stuck in an environment, I didn't have to restart as there was a game master on-site (we were at Zenimax Online's massive customer support center that will be fully active when the game launches) to quickly save me. How I wish I had that in Skyrim. While the game does dip a little too far to the MMO side of the scales at times, it strikes a much better balance than I had expected.
Being able to play through the entire main quest solo is a big plus, especially for someone coming from the single-player side of things. Battles in The Elder Scrolls Online are the most fun I've had with combat in the series to date and PvP seems to be a unique twist on simple faction battles, as alliances will be storming, and defending, castles in a constant back and forth swing much like in a real war.
There is a lot of variety here, so if the quests stay interesting throughout and exploration opens up more, then this game could be a real success for Bethesda. The pricing structure is something that is still not being talked about, but with the quick swap over of Star Wars: The Old Republic to free-to-play and the seeming success of the subscription-less Guild Wars 2, the devs would do well to consider avoiding a monthly fee.
As a fan of the Elder Scrolls series and not so much MMOs, I was surprised just how much I was getting into ESO once I got past the linearity of the tutorial zones. Under the right circumstances (read: with no monthly subscription), this would be something I could easily see myself playing through solo while occasionally teaming up with friends to go through more challenging dungeons, diving into a PvP session to storm a castle, or simply hunting for some cool new armor. This is especially true since there are no server shards that you have to be tied into. Using a technology called Megaserver, all players will log into a single server and using matchmaking features, players will be able to seamlessly team up with friends and others that they had positive experiences with without having to worry about being on the wrong server. This alone helps relieve worries of picking the wrong server and having to hope for a transfer later.
There is still plenty of time before the game launches next year, so my concerns could easily be addressed before then. This is especially true since the development staff was very interested in our feedback, no matter how critical. The message was very mixed at the initial reveal and it was difficult to truly explain how much the team was trying to make this more of a social Elder Scrolls experience and not just another MMO. That said, there are a lot of things here that make The Elder Scrolls Online a compelling experience for both MMO fans as well as those of us who simply enjoy the Elder Scrolls world and lore. And for someone who is not typically an MMO fan, the fact that this game now has my attention speaks volumes.